Thank goodness for morning pages. They’re like the letter your homeroom teacher had you write to yourself on the first day of class, which she then sealed in an envelope for you to open on the last, and inside you find an enchanting, vaguely familiar message proving that past-, more-motivated you did the work. It’s a wonder! Good job, past you!
Who knows how long ago I scribbled this meditation chewing over flash v. vignette in my Cambridge Steno 8.5 “x 11” 80-sheet notebook, but here we are, peeling the lid off my one-page time capsule.
I just finished teaching Function Follows Form, an essay forms class full of beautiful writers, through Indiana Writers Center, and this smudgy, wrinkled page would have come in handy. Every time I sit down to teach or write vignette, I return to my MFA notes and Lopate to refresh my understanding of the nuances of various forms. Flash, however, is absent, so it’s up to me to analyze and explore on my own. Join me, won’t you?
Here are those morning pages notes, more or less unedited. I’d love your thoughts on the topic, because as far as I know there’s no book or definitive answer (but this lovely Mama Flash can probably illuminate us):
Vignette vs. Flash: Is there a difference? What is it? One is a small scene, a tiny portrait painted with words that show, that evoke, that bring to life a place or vibe or experience without telling (please forgive that old chestnut). Flash should, as with good writing in general, show, but it also tells a story—things happen—a beginning, middle, and end; whereas vignette may do that but with more poetry by engaging the senses with word choice. [And when I type that last sentence I realize how off the mark is that notion.] Vignette is a more compact lyric essay, a stage where prose and poetry dance. Flash isn’t about painting a picture (or is it?). It can and should and usually does evoke feelings, to be sure, but flash is also allowed to be all tell with little-to-no show and still works and even dazzles.
[And here is where I need to find an example to support that statement, so I will now turn to the webs . . . Okay, I’m back. Smokelong had my back. Fridge Flash: Peace, by Maya Bolden. See? Flash—story, telling, poetry, dazzling.]
Flash can be a 200-word memoir of an entire life or day, or exist just to make a single point. Is it fair to say one makes the reader feel and the other makes them think? One is impressionism, the other realism? That the lines are less defined in vignette(?), though that is probably wrong. A friend said, “flash is complete, and vignette is part of a whole.” I like that. What say you?
My good friend Mia (MY-uh) Hinkle, a Minnesota native and mother of two wonderful grown sons who are biracial, wrote this stunning response to What Is Happening in the U.S. First checking with her sons for permission (which they granted) to share it on her social media, Mia has graciously granted me permission to post her poignant meditation to my blog. Thank you, Mia. I love you.
“All In This Together” By Mia Hinkle (May 30, 2020)
I know it sounds trite, but we are all in this together and we better start acting like it. I’ll go first. I remember the moment I came face to face with my indoctrination about race and discovered it was different from what I’d been telling myself.
Let me preface by saying that I was 11 years old growing up in west-central Minnesota before I saw my first non-Caucasian person: he was a porter on a train handing out towels and cleaning up and I remember he smelled so good. There was ONE African American student in my entire high school the year I graduated in 1972. So, bless my heart, I didn’t get any of that early programming that kids in the south or kids in the cities get about people of color staying in their place, whatever that means. I liked everyone and everyone liked me. Really, I grew up clueless about race issues of any kind.
I was a thirty-something professional woman working at a finance company in a five-story office building at 91stand Meridian on Indianapolis north side. Respected company, great boss, upwardly mobile, the whole shebang. My husband was still traveling 280 days a year with the band so I often worked late.
I got to know the people who showed up in the evenings to clean our office space. For the longest time he was an older black man. His name was Harry. He was chatty and really sweet. We struck up a little friendship. We enjoyed relaxed small talk, he showed off baby pictures of his grandkids, and he was so happy when I showed him pictures of our oldest son coming home from the hospital. We’d laugh and share stories as he emptied trash and ran the vacuum.
Then one day he was gone. And his replacement was a middle-aged white guy. And I got nervous. I started to leave the office as soon as I saw him wheeling his trash caddy through the hallways. I don’t know why but he gave me the creeps. I was listening to my gut telling me this guy was sketchy; after all what kind of white guy is still emptying trash and cleaning office space halfway through his life. He must be up to no good, casing the joint, some kind of perv, a criminal, or some such.
Scurrying out to my car one evening, my mind flashed back to my old friend, Harry. I wished he was still my cleaning guy and not this new sketchy white guy. I was comfortable around Harry. Sweet. Harmless. An old guy earning an honest living doing manual labor.
I stopped in my tracks! What? A middle of the night office cleaning job was an honorable living for an elderly black man but NOT for a white guy? What is wrong with me? How did this line of logic slip quietly into my psyche? I nearly suffered whip-lash at this realization. I resolved that my thinking has to change today. With me. Not with the politicians. Not with the media. With me and my circle of influence. So I tried everything I could to begin to fend off lazy thinking and old stereotypes. That was over 30 years ago.
This week the news is again ablaze with race in America, police brutality, and downright evil from the pit of Hell with a capital H.
This week in Minneapolis it was a white police officer who kneeled his full weight on the neck of a handcuffed black man for over 8 minutes until he died right there in front of God and everybody. And I do mean EVERYBODY #socialmediastorm.
Last week in Central Park it was an African American Harvard educated, Director on the Board of the Audubon Society, a birdwatcher who was falsely accused of threatening an angry white woman who couldn’t control her dog. She took exception when “someone lesser” had the audacity to ask her to simply put her dog on a leash.
Last month in Georgia they finally arrested a couple of angry white guys who hunted down and shot to death a young black man jogging in his own neighborhood. Three months after his murder.
And all of this against the back-drop of Coronavirus where people of color are infected and dying at a rate far greater rate than the rest of us.
It is a century and a half after the end of the Civil War! What the hell is going on? What is wrong with people? It is 66 years after the Supreme Court ruled on Brown vs The Board of Education, the same year I was born. It’s over half a century since MLK was murdered. It’s almost 30 years since Rodney King; I remember playing on the floor with my 15-month-old brown baby boy when the news cycles started playing that footage over and over again. What is wrong with people?!
The Biblical answer is probably something like this, “There is nothing new under the sun.” In the words of Will Smith, “Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed.” I can’t help but wonder if people of color in America have felt the knee of power and white supremacy pressed upon their necks, in one way or another, for a very long time.
I could take up this air space to share family stories of white privilege exerting pressure on the hearts of my bi-racial sons. Like the time our 16-year-old was slammed to the floor by a rent-a-cop while waiting in popcorn line at a Carmel movie theater at the behest of a nervous white woman who reported to the pimply-faced white theater manager that someone matching my son’s description brought a gun into the theater. Or the time he was pulled over for speeding on 465 and asked to step out of the car and searched while semi-trucks and cars whizzed by at 80 miles an hour. Aren’t the rest of us told to stay in our cars while they run our plates? Or the time I overheard a fight with his girlfriend; she was screaming, “If you don’t let me in, I’m going to call the cops and tell them you’re choking me. I’m serious, I will tell them you’ve been touching my baby daughter.” She knew that simply uttering those hysterical words to the police officers would be his judge and jury sentencing my innocent son to jail or worse. How about the time my younger son found himself two hours from home enduring dinner table vile racist language as he met extended family members for the first time. Completely outnumbered, he just kept his composure and stayed polite until it was time to go home. And then there is the time a teammate on a U-8 soccer team asked my son why his skin was the color of poop; kids are 7 years old on a U-8 team. I won’t even mention the fact my boys are followed and surveilled every time they walk into Best Buy. And I am sure there are more incidences my kids haven’t even shared with me because this kind of thing has become commonplace for them now as adults.
And just as disgusting is the list of instances where I have enjoyed the fruits of white privilege and didn’t give it a second thought. It is a much longer list.
These kinds of injustices happen every day for people of color and not always at the hands of police. We all know it’s wrong but here we sit like deer in the headlights. It seems to me that we always want someone ELSE to blame for crap like this. We can easily blame the current administration for giving validation, even encouragement to these fearful small-minded people in places of power, so much so that, even knowing they are being filmed, they firmly believe they will get off scot-free because they are white and he is black, or they are cops and he is black, or because they will be automatically believed and he is black. I could go on and on. I could scream!!
I would submit that this is a sin thing and not specifically a white privilege thing or a black thing or a cop thing or a power thing or a current administration thing. We have indeed been profoundly misled to believe there is no problem because it doesn’t affect us.
As citizens of this planet and children of God, we have the power to change things. Jesus is grieved by this crap and He is calling all of us to step up and stand with the oppressed. I can’t fathom how much this grieves Him, but I doubt he’s surprised by it. Tonight Minneapolis is on fire and the flames are spreading like coronavirus to major cities across the land of the free. Itching for another civil war fueled by race riots, militant white anarchists from out of state cowardly hide behind disguises and smash windows and toss accelerants inside. Ridiculous media commentators fan the flames along with well-meaning upstanding Christian brothers and sisters who retweet messages insinuating that destroying a Target store is a crime more egregious than squeezing the life out a human being in broad daylight as he begged for his life. In 1953 Martin Luther King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” He wasn’t condoning violence, I think he was “just sayin.” I’m not sure where I read this: “Some of you Christians don’t realize that God would burn down ALL the Target stores if it would set some oppressed people free. Read the Exodus story again.” Also not original with me, “If the rioters were really from Minneapolis, they would have burned down the K-Mart.”
One person will not be our undoing, nor can one person save us from ourselves. Change is going to take all of us undergoing a cosmic shift in our way of thinking.
A shift away from the “us and them” way of thinking.
A shift away from fear-based thinking.
A shift away from everybody’s-out-to-get-me way of thinking.
A shift away from lazy stereotypical thinking.
A shift toward inclusion.
A shift toward being the love of Christ to people who don’t look like us.
It’s going to start within the heart of each of us. Really, I know it sounds trite, but we ARE all in this together and we better start acting like it.
But when Indy literary pal Sarah Layden offered me her ARC of The Story I Tell Myself About Myself to preview, I was all in. She’s such a peach and her debut novel, Trip Through Your Wires, such a tasty treat, I jumped on the opportunity to lose myself in her ability to concoct mood and character in her honey-chipotle way.
Okay, a confession: I didn’t realize Sarah’s latest book, set to release August 30, was a chapbook of flash fiction—not until the third page. Problem was, by the second I was transfixed. And then page 3 crushed me with the realization that I wouldn’t get to spend the remaining pages with story one’s messed up characters all mangled by modern love. Until her second micro-story, with the stranded single mother who broke my heart. She hooked me with her magical skills, then made me feel what her characters feel, over and over again.
The thing that chaps me about flash—and short stories in general, I suppose—is that they’re just so annoyingly in vogue right now. I’ve tried writing them, and even had a couple published, but they’re just not my thing. It’s probably me. I tend to resist the popular. I never saw Titanic in theaters. I never ate, prayed, or loved. I admit this trait may be a flaw.
But another thing about brief fiction—it’s nearly impossible to write well. I feel for the editors of magazines that publish flash, to think of the mounds of mush they must have to plow through from newbie submitters who think, “Flash fiction? I can do that.” Only, they can’t. It takes discipline, skill, practice, and talent to create worlds, populate them with living beings, build and resolve tension—to fulfill the duties of a fiction writer—often in under 500 words.
Only, Sarah Layden can and does, page after page, with enviable mastery.
The Story I Tell Myself About Myself is, to a writer, maddeningly excellent. To a reader, it’s a twisty, turny, delicious way to spend a few hours. Dammit, Sarah Layden!
I stepped over to my manager’s cube and announced my depression. It occurred to me yesterday morning before heading into work, all slumped against my pillow with TODAY and a mug of coffee, that this persistent weight of sadness even Hoda can’t cheer away is simple, unmistakable, good ole fashioned “feeling depressed.”
And searching for a substitute for that word to avoid repetition I realize how perfectly descriptive that word is, depressed: I’m a tongue and the thin wooden paddle of life is squishing me, causing me to gag and my eyes to water. My spirit, the lever of me, is being pushed into submission. I am dispirited. I’m pressed. Down.
I’ll be fine. I’ve felt worse. It’s just that one of those normal life passages that pass for loss looms. My sweet little bird—my second and final—is about to fly from the nest. I realize that this is not a tragedy, but I am more than sad. “You’ve done this before, with your boy,” you say, and you’re right. But that was different. Due to a host of challenges, poor lad, the weeks and months leading up to his departure knotted me up in worry more than sadness.
He was the first, and I ached for him and still miss him when he’s gone, but this one’s so final. This one marks the empty nest milestone and all that comes with it. (When Mayo Clinic offers coping tips, it’s real.) I feel downright depressed, though mildly enough to have energy to seek ways to fight it, thank goodness.
So since my boss, whose only child has been away at college in another state for two years, seems not to be suicidal, I decided to confide in her. “I’m depressed,” I said beneath the office glare, “because Grace is leaving for college in less than three weeks.” I went to her thirsty for some sage perspective, which she offered freely. She gently reminded me of a well-tested device. “Make a list,” she said, “of what you have to be thankful for. Try to focus on all the good things about the situation.” This experienced mama bird was prescribing gratitude.
A List of Good Things About Now, or My Attempt at Gratitude
I have the luxury of dreading my little girl’s departure purely because I will miss her and not because I am worried. I feel assured that she is in a good place, every indication that she is ready to launch.
She was accepted into the honors program and will be living in a spankin’ new residence hall (with AC!) with other honors students at a well respected institution of higher learning. This is a very good thing.
She likes her assigned roommate.
My girl will “only be an hour away” by car. But here’s the thing: she could be a two-hour plane ride away, and the everyday reality of my house is the same—she will not be in her room cuddling our cat, on the couch beside me watching TCM, playing her guitar on the screened porch. No more impromptu “belly walks” around the block or binge-watching Nashville (poor Deacon). But the point of this list is to practice gratitude—so okay, I can get there or she get can get home within an hour if she needs anything (or if I need her). I am thankful for that.
My daughter and I have a relationship that is sweet enough to miss. She and I have a kinship it never even occurred to me to wish for. I didn’t know this quality of mother-daughter closeness could exist. She’s a dear friend, my most fun pal. Her presence is sunshine and light. I want to be more like her when I grow up. If I say more now, I will cry and not stop.
Sadness impelled me to write this blog post, the first in two years.
Technology. My sage supervisor recently used FaceTime to coach her daughter through cleaning a room fan. With the magic of a video phone, separated by 800 miles they conquered a household task together. When I was three states away in college, I had to rely on handwritten letters and long-distance calls on a wall phone. Grace’s and my smart phones will easily connect us. I will still have access to that sweet face and can hear daily details of her life as often as she allows, and will also be available to her when she needs me.
She seems excited to go. In two months she has gone through her own stages of grief—from bummed about not getting into her top choice, to confusion over the leftovers, to defeatist about where she decided to go, to ambivalence, to acceptance, to enthusiasm enough to design and construct her own tassel-embellished bedspread. This is huge and it all has been a wonder to watch.
I have a daughter at all. God let me be her mom, to live 18 years with this girl. She is a miracle, a dream, and everything good my heart ever longed for. She’s healthy, happy, sweet, kind, smart, and motivated to go forth and fulfill her potential. This is the best case scenario of parenting.
My boss. She is pretty cool, and she is a friend.
I’m still a wee bit depressed, and I probably will be for the next few months at least. But if smiling can fool a brain into thinking it’s happy, then listing the good things about my baby bird leaving the nest may well fool me into acceptance. (Or at least get me to Thanksgiving.)
A sweet friend from my Montrose halcyon days recently reached out from Vancouver, BC, over Facebook, in search of writing help. I suggested a writing group, workshop, or a Creative Nonfiction online course, but her season of life limits her time and mobility, making those options impractical. So once a week, I’ve been emailing her reading and writing assignments, primarily to coach her into cultivating the habit of writing daily.
They say it takes 30 days to develop a habit, and J worked diligently to develop hers. She and I started our long distance writer/coach relationship around mid-January, and now she’s ready for more focused instruction. Her first two assignments were throat-clearers, and now we’re getting down to business. I turned to Poets & Writers for her next prompt and encountered this arresting poem by Ansel Elkins.
Wearing nothing but snakeskin
boots, I blazed a footpath, the first
radical road out of that old kingdom
toward a new unknown.
When I came to those great flaming gates
of burning gold,
I stood alone in terror at the threshold
between Paradise and Earth.
There I heard a mysterious echo:
my own voice
singing to me from across the forbidden
side. I shook awake—
at once alive in a blaze of green fire.
“Let it be known: I did not fall from grace. / I leapt / to freedom.” The ending of Ansel Elkin’s [sic] poem “Autobiography of Eve” is packed with confidence. Write an essay reflecting on a time when you felt a similar sense of empowerment. Maybe you ended a stifling relationship, or went back to school to train for a new career? Write about the initial fear and the certitude of your actions.
“If the work comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am, serve me,’ then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist’s talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, ‘Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.'”
This blog post is not my trickle. I fuel my trickle in the margins, when no one is looking or paying attention or reading or critiquing or praising or liking or RTing or sharing. Keep feeding your trickle, sweets.
While recovering from my summer vacation heart attack last July in the small Colorado western slope town where I lived when my children were small, I stumbled upon hidden treasure on the bookshelf of my dear friend’s guest room. Like an IV drip of creativity energy, leafing through the pages of Madeleine L’Engle Herself pinked up my cheeks and kept me going while I was in limbo.
All these months later I bought my own copy. Here’s a 2-cc dose that sets me to writing again now that life’s back to normal and I have the luxury of thinking I’m too busy to create on a daily basis.
An Incarnational Event
Obedience is an unpopular word nowadays, but the artist must be obedient to the work, whether it be a symphony, a painting, or a story for a small child. I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius, or something very small, comes to the artist and says, “Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.” And the artist either says, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one, and not everyone has the humble, courageous obedience of Mary.
On an ice-glazed morning, today’s reading thaws my cockles. Thanks again, Annie L:
When all is said and done, spring is the main reason for Wow. Spring is crazy, being all hope and beauty and glory. She is the resurrection. Spring is Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
Buds opening and releasing, mud and cutting winds, bright green grass and blue skies, nests full of baby birds. All of these are deserving of Wow—even though I have said elsewhere that spring is also about deer ticks—and everywhere you look, couples are falling in love, and the air is saturated with the scent of giddiness and doom. Petals are wafting and falling slowly through the air, and there is something so Ravel, languorous, reminding me to revel in the beauty of things wafting.
Did you know the list is a legit narrative nonfiction form? Yep, and it’s ancient. McSweeney’s did not invent the list. Around the first day of the first month of Noah’s 601st year, as the ground was drying out, a writer in Sumeria (now southern Iraq) carved wedge-shaped letters into stone tablets, composing a work of wisdom scholars consider to be the first work of literature. It was different from the lists kept for commerce or civic life: goats, bushels, grapes, and the like. The List of Ziusudra showed the writer’s mind in thought. It was, arguably, an essay. Some of the most well known examples of the form come from ancient writers whose lists persist as time capsules, preserving the writers’ thoughts and cultural contexts. So for your weekend writing prompt, sharpen your pencils and write away. Make up some paint colors that describe your day, your week, or a month or year in your life, and list them. It’s fun, and discovered years later a list can be a little bit fascinating. I found this list in the free-write vault, no doubt leftover from 2010 when I was eyebrow deep in kitchen remodel decor decisions. It’s not the most refined list, and to say it’s an “essay” is a reach, but each silly little entry instantly revives in my memory a story from my family life at the time it was written.
My Paint Chip Memoir (2010)
Age Spot Tan
First Gray Hair Greige
Stubborn Toilet Ring Gris
Heart Cath Bruise Purple
Dust Bunny Taupe
Burnt Rhubarb Pie Crust
I want to read your paint chip memoir, I really do. Post them in comments?
Collage, fragmented, montage, segmented, lyric, sectioned: a mosaic by any other name was still a thorn in my flesh. The first mosaic I ever tried to write amounted to little more than a clumsy knockoff of a Richard Rodriguez essay assigned in my first MFA nonfiction workshop.
Three years later, I tried again. I picked up the same Rodriguez and works by Montaigne, inventor of the form.
I read and froze.
I re-read Rodriguez. I couldn’t grasp the peculiar features of the form firmly enough to do it myself. Reading Rodriguez did not help.
Stained glass makes sense, the image my professor used to illustrate the mosaic essay. Like stained glass in a church, each paragraph or group of paragraphs a single scene, which viewed with all the other scenes, make sense alone but make the most impact only when the last scene clicks into place.
But my own mosaic attempts continued to be stilted, round-peg-square-hole experiments. Shrinky Dinks in my mother’s oven.
More research. More reading. If I can grasp “the rules,” I can write a mosaic.
Montaigne, On Some Verses of Virgil. I meditate more on Montaigne’s words, searching for clues. Of Books: “Let attention be paid not to the matter, but to the shape I give it.”
Nester’s Teaching Blog. Daniel Nester: “What Papa Montaigne means, I think, is that the form of the essay, the way the essay reflects the consciousness of the writer, is just as important, if not more, than what is addressed.”
Ned Stuckey-French lights a candle and guides me toward understanding in his characterization of Rodriguez’s Late Victorians. “(Appearing) as a mosaic personal essay – constructing a solid theme through bits and pieces of different subjects.”
Closer to clarity, I can’t think of a single topic to squeeze into a patchwork-prose quilt. Maybe I’m trying too hard to get it.
I scour my public library, the internet. Ninety-day diet.
I gobble up every mosaic essay I can find. Over three months I rack up $10 in overdue fines for the convenience of Best Creative Nonfiction anthologies on my bedside table for multiple nighttime readings of the same mosaics.
Magic. Osmosis. Click. Eula Biss breaks through with pure, original mosaic, with only the faintest hints of Montaigne or Rodriguez.
Robin Black grabs me by the throat, her heartfelt essay reflecting the angst of parenting decisions in its own herky-jerky structure and section titles.
Ander Monson’s quieter mosaic offers another, contrasting example of how a fragmented essay can be daring in its structure, through the use of titles, tone and pace.
Dev Hathaway breaks my heart. “North Pole, South Pole, the Sea of Carcinoma” presents medical facts with deft restraint of sentiment.
All my CNF favorites differed from examples left by the inventor of the mosaic and from one another; but they are all indeed mosaics. I immersed myself in these works. I stopped trying to apprehend the concept of mosaic and gave in to the experience of mosaic. And I got it.
The more I tried to comprehend the rules the more I realized that the key to mosaic is its suspension of the usual narrative rules. Nester’s rationale behind Montaigne’s approach to mosaic personal essay was the final tile in the mosaic of my search that made the form clear to me, at long last:
The demands of a narrative, of exposition, of having to explain everything can frustrate the writer who has other things to say. The desire to write a piece of nonfiction that lets other, perhaps nonlinear, factors affect its shape goes back to the origins of the essay itself.
Nester nailed it. I had other things to say. I scanned through my daily writing entries, found one with a topic that had eluded me for ten years, and started riffing. Riffing sans structure freed an essay to collage itself to life. I gave it permission to emerge in tiles that “tell a story individually and in the aggregate” with its its content and its form.
Me and Mosaic
In the process of trying to grasp a form I’ve found a new friend, a secret weapon that helps me write about the most complex and slippery subjects from as many different angles as my mind can think to write.
“Sin is not the adult bookstore on the corner. It is the hard heart, the lack of generosity, and all the isms, racism and sexism and so forth. But is there a crack where a ribbon of light might get in, might sneak past all the roadblocks and piles of stones, mental and emotional and cultural?”
The truth in this quote seized me from the pages of one of my Christmas gifts, but typed up on this 17-inch screen the words are damning. My heart is tender, too tender, and so I have learned, finally, to seal it up tight to keep the hurtful barbs of life and crushing betrayals from causing more cardiac damage. But then, at what point does guarding this most critical muscle give way to hardening? And isn’t a hardened heart far more tragic than a broken heart?